Engagement with local general practitioners and health services

During the Hazelwood mine fire, Dr Brook and Dr Lester were informed about the impact of the mine fire on the community and on local health services by a range of health sector sources. This included regular information from the Latrobe Regional Hospital, local general practitioners and Ambulance Victoria. The information received by Dr Brook and Dr Lester during the fire indicated that the demand for health services could be managed within the local health system’s existing capacity.42

Dr Brook reported to the Board that in keeping with usual practice, the Department of Health provided information to health service providers to assist them with issues and concerns that patients may have during the Hazelwood mine fire.43

Independent expert Professor Donald Campbell, Professor of Medicine, Southern Clinical School, Monash University and Program Director, General Medicine Program, Monash Health, highlighted for the Board the importance of engagement with local general practitioners during a health emergency. He explained that people look to doctors to advocate on their behalf and expected them to understand health issues and to provide consistent advice.44

On 13 February 2014, Dr Lester issued a health alert directed to local government authorities, the health and aged sectors, government departments and agencies, service providers and community groups. In addition to providing general advice about the level of smoke from the Hazelwood mine fire, the health alert stated that general practitioners in the Latrobe Valley were likely to see an increase in presentations and calls from ‘at risk’ patients concerned about the health impacts of smoke. The health alert also stated that anyone with a cardiovascular or respiratory condition should follow the treatment plan advised by their doctor and anyone with symptoms such as wheezing, chest tightness and difficulty breathing should seek medical advice promptly. That alert was updated on 17 February 2014 and 21 February 2014, but did not provide any additional information to assist general practitioners.45

On 19 February 2014, the Department of Health contacted 18 local general practitioners to discuss any increase in demand they had seen during the Hazelwood mine fire. From this date, the Department of Health received twice-weekly reports, via Medicare Local, about the impacts on general practices in the Latrobe Valley from the Hazelwood mine fire.46

On 4 March 2014, Dr Lester issued an advisory that provided updated advice about the Hazelwood mine fire to local government authorities, the health and aged sectors, government departments and agencies, and service providers and community groups. The advisory included a paragraph titled ‘clinical advice’, which stated that ‘clinical advice or onward referral for further assessment or management should be through usual pathways’ and that toxicological advice could be obtained from the poisons information line or Austin Health.47

Despite these measures, some local general practitioners felt that they were not kept sufficiently informed during the Hazelwood mine fire, and as a result they were not able to appropriately advocate for their patients. Some general practitioners told the Board that in the absence of authoritative information, they do not become aware of trending issues until they see multiple patients presenting with similar symptoms.48 They told the Board that the Department of Health should have informed all local medical practitioners of the following, within three days of the mine fire starting:

  • current circumstances
  • what local practitioners could anticipate
  • what local practitioners should do
  • how the situation would be monitored
  • that people with respiratory/cardiac issues should leave the area.49

Professor Campbell told the Board that general practitioners should get the right source of information about a specialised and unusual event to inform the provision of advice that they give their patients. He submitted that general practitioners need simple, actionable messages that can be applied to patients. He explained that as a health practitioner and receiver of health messages:

anything more sophisticated than traffic lights, colour-coded, three levels, is going to get lost… if you make it more sophisticated than that for me, I will struggle to absorb the information and turn it into an actionable message.50